Would the Real Mahogany Please be Upstanding

An anxious reader emailed me about my use of mahogany for my current, and several recent pieces of furniture. He/she (unclear… one of those unisex christian names) was concerned that I was employing endangered/illegal timber in my reproductions.

The Spanish mahoganies – Cuban, Jamaican and Santo Domingan – (Swietenia mahagoni) were largely worked out by the mid eighteenth-century and so are effectively non-existent commercially. Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) whose range extends from Central America across much of South America is under extreme threat in its native habitat and logging it is tightly controlled. However, illegal logging and exporting is rife. Legal logging of S. macrophylla in Bolivia, one of the major producers, has recently been curtailed due to their failure to meet Convention in Trading Endangered Species compliance.

The mahogany I purchase for my reproductions comes from plantations near Suva in Fiji which were established by the British in the early twentieth-century as part of a global forestry experiment. Approximately 40,000 hectares were planted with S. macrophylla seeds from British Honduras (now Belize) where they quietly grew untouched until the late 1990s. Growing pressure from the environmental movement over over-logging of mahogany in South America prompted the search for alternative supplies.

The Fijian Sustainable Forest Industries mahogany plantations are now over eighty years old and are producing some wonderful mature timber. SFI mahogany has been excluded from CITES and is not subject to any other conventions or restrictions.

Rows of mature Fijian mahogany. (SFI)

When SFI began logging the mahogany, to their surprise, the mahogany regenerated itself and now does so faster than it can be harvested. The growing conditions in Fiji are seemingly ideally suited to S. macrophylla as each generation produces better timber than the previous.

A mature tree alongside a self-regenerated tree. (SFI)

Similar S. macrophylla plantations exist in other areas of the Pacific, Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

For many years, the only real mahogany one could get one’s hands on was from Brazil (African ‘Mahogany’ [Khaya spp.] and a myriad of other impostors are inappropriate for making accurate copies of antiques). Latter Brazilian mahogany was mostly horrid pale pink stuff and for many years I did very little new work with mahogany, but since the coming on-line of plantation-grown S. macrophylla, we’ve been rewarded with proper ‘eighteenth-century’ mahogany again. The timber is dense, well figured and polishes up just like the real article.

No mahogany is exported from Fiji in log form; SFI process all the logs themselves, producing sustainable timber and at the same time, providing local employment.

Mahogany timber mill at Nukurua. (SFI)

Stacking beautifully figured mahogany boards. (SFI)

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Furniture Timbers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Would the Real Mahogany Please be Upstanding

  1. badger says:

    Excellent post. I love seeing good options for sustainably harvested woods.

    Where do you get yours from?


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